Some Late Italian Books
THE new Italy, like every other living land in these days, is full — only too full — of copious writers both in prose and verse. No one of the first rank has yet appeared among them ; but neither has there been any such apparition in any other country since the fairest of all recovered her full national consciousness, a generation ago. A good many of these new voices are the voices of women, and this also is a sign of the times ; the most distinguished and promising of the young writers of Italian verse being undoubtedly the Lombard poetess, Ada Negri.
Very little is known even in her own country concerning her person and her history, but that, little is interesting and affecting. She is very young, scarcely more than twenty. Her birth was as obscure as possible; her childhood was passed in grinding poverty. Her parents (her mother, at least; of the father we hear nothing, and he may have died in Ada’s infancy) belonged to the class of day laborers ; and when the girl was made mistress of a school at Motta-Visconti, the appointment to this laborious and humble post was great promotion for her. Ada Negri’s first poems appeared singly in the newspapers, a good many of them in the Corriere della Sera. It is only during the last year that they have been collected and issued by the Brothers Treves, in Milan, in a tiny sixteenmo, whose title, Fatalità,1 will perhaps appear less affected and Leopardian to the reader after he has had a taste of their quality. The Italian form of these verses, though ingeniously and irresistibly musical, is not so perfect that they will be greatly wronged in this respect by the attempt to render a few of them into English metre. It is the spirit of them which imports, and to that we have been as faithful as possible.
The introductory stanzas, from which the book takes its name, tell briefly, with no waste of words or metaphor, of the midnight apparition by the bedside of the poor little singer of a dark spectre, regarded at first with uncontrollable fear and aversion, but afterwards accepted bravely as a lifelong companion. The name of the shape was Misfortune, and the burden of her message is all in that proverbial stanza,
one among the many of which it was given to Longfellow to make an absolutely perfect translation: —
Who ne’er the mournful midnight hours
Weeping upon his bed has sate,
He knows you not, ye Heavenly Powers.”
We turn a couple of pages, and come to Birichino di Strada, or
THE STREET ARAB.
Handsome in all his dirt,
The flutter of his ragged little shirt,
His bursting shoes and merry braggart bearing ;
His raveled hose all shown,
Hitting the dogs’ legs with a well aimed stone,
Thievish, corrupt, the world thus early braving,
Poor little flower o’ the thorn,
Of mother in the factory since the morn ;
The hut forsaken; father always drinking.
“ What wilt thou do,”I say,
“Unkempt, untaught, going thine own wild way.
Without a guide or helper in the city ?
But in a score years’ time
Wilt thou be snatching purses, deft in
Skilled artisan, or skilled to cheat and gar-
Or convict’s livery ?
Turn brave or brutal ? Shall I look for thee
In shop, or hospital, or prison-house ? ”
And strain him to my breast,
In extreme transport of a soul possessed
By ruth and anguish that no words can utter;
His lips, his bosom, smother,
And, sobbing o’er him as he were my bro-
Cry out in broken speech, hysterical:
I, too, a flower o’ the thorn,
With mother in the factory since the morn.
I know it all; and oh, I love thee,— love
thee ! ”
Surely the divine passion for poverty has found no keener expression since the days of St. Francis of Assisi. And this leads us to note one singular, yet after all perfectly natural characteristic of much of the new Italian literature: though resolutely and intensely modern in sentiment, it is full of the signs and suggestions of antiquity, — unconscious classicisms of thought and phrase, which plainly come de race, and not of studious endeavor. Whoever has had much to do with Italians will have noticed something similar in his daily intercourse with them. Superficially candid, they are essentially mysterious. The heir of an infinite series of old civilizations is perpetually startling and baffling the child of the comparatively new. One comes upon dark gaps in his inner being, opening into half-choked passages, like the underground galleries which may be found connecting remote buildings in so many of the old cities. The Italians have wonderful traditions of construction, and are sought for all over the world as practical builders, but their special genius is for tunneling.
To return to our little Lombard schoolmistress. She is absolutely loyal to her origin, but in her proud manner of embracing her depressed lot there is something essentially patrician. This is how she identifies herself with
A numberless, endless horde ;
Their serried tramp like the distant booming
When thunderstorms are toward.
With measured march and slow,
Bareheaded and sackcloth-clad, and fever
In every eye aglow.
Surging as surges the sea,
All gaunt, and gray in the face, around me
They close relentlessly;
I hear their pantings hoarse ;
A long-drawn wail in the dark hath risen,
With sighs and curses coarse :
From beds that give no peace,
Where slowly, slowly, the frame once tireless
Yields to its long disease.
And dens of thieves we come.
Wide as the world our shadow grovels
With danger fraught and doom.
And were by Faith betrayed.
For Love we sought, believing, hoping,
And wore hv Love betrayed.
‘ Work only,ߣ we entreated.
Unheard our prayer! We strive no longer.
Pity for the defeated!
Golden the light above ;
Rings the welkin to one glad chorus
Of labor and of love;
Hide in the mountain hollow ;
Trumpet, of enterprise loudly calling
On brave, strong men to follow.
With infinite desire ;
Generous lives their all are flinging
Into the seething fire.
On our stepmother earth ?
Stifled our heart-throbs ? Would but trust us
With anguish and with dearth
Failure to us has meted,
Mocking our cry to an eyeless Fate,
‘ Pity for the defeated ’ ? ”
A large majority of the lyrics strike the same sombre note. In place of the frank egotism common to the youthful singer, the application to all the facts of nature and life of the test of individual feeling, we have the sufferings of the race, the dark riddle of the fallen world, laid resolutely to an almost childish heart, as in Popolana, La Macchina Romba, Vegliardo — in Chiesa, and the truly terrible protest of the outraged body in Autopsia, which we have not ventured to touch. But Ada Negri is too thoroughly human and ingenuous not to have other moods. Youth and genius will sometimes revolt against Fatalità. There are reactions toward the joy of life, cries for love, and passing moments of strange exhilaration like that which she has recorded in the poem called
A fount is set flowing
Of colors all glowing ;
The newly sprung green,
How sparkling, how tender!
Suffusion of splendor
In heaven and earth
Ardent, unveiled, and victorious in mirth.
The waters are treading,
White butterflies wedding
With roses ; and crescent
The old pagan sweetness
Breathes from each flower ;
And they laugh, and they sing of the loves of the hour.
A fountain of hope,
And the rapture and scope
I divine of mere living.
My happy dreams follow
The flight of the swallow
Through sunlighted air.
I’m the spendthrift of song, and the sun’s millionaire !
Here, too, in the curious lilt of the short measure we catch an echo of something exceedingly far off, which we presently capture and identify in one of the fine Resurrection hymns of the Latin Church:
Summus et imus
Gaudeat orbis ! ”
The rapture of Luce is inevitably brief. It seems connected with a very simple bit of maidenly experience just hinted at in the next song. Take Me Away, where the key modulates rapidly through the familiar phases of doubt and struggle and renunciation to the wistful minor of
Poor little rooms the mother made so gay!
Ah, what wild hopes were whirling in my
How rich my day-dreams, when I went away!
Poor little home, I am come back again!
And flowering creepers wave a lullaby ;
Some heavenly memory of the Aprils dead
Whispering in their soft sprays continually.
White is the cover of my baby-bed.
Responsive to those memories of yore ;
A touch of higher faith and finer scorn
Curls the mute lips I thought would smile no
And in my heart a slender hope is born.
I drop my head, and feel the old caress;
My Overmastering troubles I confess,
Here, mother, in the stillness, close by thee.
Sole comfort of my sorrowful twenty years;
For while I cling to thee, thou knowest why
The ache subsides, the terror disappears.
And let us part no more at all, I cry.
Making the stars throb in the firmament;
And all the sick creation falls on ease,
The petals close, the noisy winds are spent,
The air about us draws a sigh of peace.
Is it fanciful to note again, in the last stanza, a coincidence with the thought of an almost immeasurably remote past? It was Diogenes of Apollonia, one of the earliest of the Greek philosophers, who supported his theory that the universe was one vast living organism by the palpable fact that the stars sparkled when it drew breath !
This shall be the last of our attempted versions. But observe — for it is after all characteristic of the volume — that the tone of Revisited, though sad, is by no means morbid nor entirely pessimistic. It is in this respect that the work of Ada Negri differs most remarkably from that of the lady who writes under the name of Marchesa Colombi, and still more from the heart-rending studies in poverty and pain of the very powerful Neapolitan novelist, Matilde Serao. The All’erta, Sentinella! 2 of the latter leaves the reader for the time being in despair not of united Italy only, but. of all things in heaven and earth; and the Conquista di Roma,3 a bitterly ironical title, in which the same strong writer deals directly with some of the burning questions of the hour, is no better. The most confident enthusiast for the new order, as he journeys southward, in the last chapter of the Conquista, with the ruined deputy, San Giorgio, must ask himself whether the dream of a regenerate Italy be not, after all, the most deceitful of chimeras ; whether this complex and fickle people, in whom the sympathetic and the cynical, the wildest idealism and the most pitiless realism, are blended in such curious proportions, does indeed contain the material for an army capable of the permanent conquest of Rome.
A wholesome antidote to these melancholy misgivings may be found in Daniele Cortis,4 by far the cleverest of the novels of Antonio Fogazzaro, and already known to the American reader by an English translation. The political salvation of the peninsula could never have come out of bella Napoli. It must have issued from the north, if at all. It was the sense of his personal unfitness for an inevitable leadership that killed Charles Albert ; it was the hold acceptance of all its risks and responsibilities which crowned Victor Emmanuel, and has immortalized his great minister. In Daniele Cortis we have the firm answer of the man of t he north to the brilliant but hysterical woman of the southern province. The two describe the same difficult and dangerous political situation ; and how fairly they both describe it is plain from the virtual identity of their pictures. All the more striking are the widely different conclusions which they draw from the same premises.
“ It has not yet been proved,” says the man, who professedly adopts the ideal, and follows the precepts of Cavour, “that there is any element here present which need prove fatal to our hopes. Let us work on, therefore, and be of good heart.” “ I feel that this will fail! ” cries the impatient woman.
“ Better desist at once from the agonizing, hopeless endeavor.”
In time, one of these will be justified, and one will be confuted. The question really is whether there are more San Giorgios or Cortises growing up in united Italy. For in Daniele Cortis Fogazzaro has performed the difficult feat of drawing a blameless hero, who is yet never priggish, who does right with a certain matter-of-fact simplicity which enlists all the reader’s sympathy, and who is yet always real. Very real, too, is the heroine, Elena di Sta. Giulia, wistful and winning, with the fatal clairvoyance of the modern Italian girl, and the modern girl in general; above all, accurately and pitifully conscious how fictitious is the strength with which the world credits herself, how suddenly and completely her power of moral resistanee is likely to fail. Great knowledge of a woman’s heart is shown in the scene where Elena, who has taken her self-denying resolve bravely, and begun resolutely to carry it out, finds her courage fail her in one treacherous instant, and helplessly abandons herself and her future to the will of the man she loves. Happily he is a good man, and she is saved.
It would be unfair to tell more in this place of the plot of Daniele Cortis, which is not merely an able political pamphlet, but an admirable story. The minor characters, the two mothers, Elena’s uncle, — that testy, lovable malade imaginaire, — the senator of the old school and he of the new, are all drawn with a sure hand, and are alive and consistent. Daniele Cortis is a true drama, and shows an enormous advance on the earlier prose works of Fogazzaro, who made his début in verse.